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Throughout my academic career, I have always been advised to find an internship or part-time job to supplement my curriculum in order to “put those classroom skills to work”. Although I whole-heartedly believe in this advice and its benefits for students, I opted for a different course. My decision was based on my thoughts that internships traditionally provided an environment where students can learn and apply their skills, but rarely allowed them to move beyond a safety net to experience failure. Yes, failure. In essence, internships are generally careful crafted and guided programs. It is a safe choice – and for many, it is perfect for what they are looking for in their career development. In my opinion, however, it is really through competitions that students are truly able to put skills to work.
As I transition out of my academic career and into my professional one, I am beginning to see how many of the skillsets that I developed while competing have proved to be far more valuable than many people recognize, and far more than I could have possibly have learned through an internship. After experiencing the threats of failing on every single project, you learn to do everything in your power (learning new skills, honing existing ones, etc.) to help your team succeed. Below are some takeaways that have helped me and my teams along the way.
Believe it or not, it's less about giving orders, and more about inspiring your team.
One of the most valuable lessons that I was able to learn was about the role and the responsibility of a leader. As I was interviewing and recruiting to fill the team, I didn’t tell them how I wanted to approach the solution, but I did tell them about the impact that we would have should we be successful. Be honest with yourself, anyone can provide a list of directions and orders to follow. But true leadership has the ability to unleash the potential of each team member. So pose a question and let your team work their magic. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how many crazy ideas are generated – and even more surprised when that idea becomes the key to your project’s success.
In a professional setting, particularly in scientific research, there are no directions or manuals which you can follow. That’s why it’s called “research”. But realize that your research can potentially save lives or contribute to the overall body of scientific knowledge inspires you.
Passion trumps all else. There are plenty of ideas and talent out there. However, true passion is a rarity.
I keep a Moleskine notebook with me everywhere I go. Over the years, it slowly evolved from an archive of thoughts and notes to a little book of crazy ideas. I see the world not as it is, but how it can be. I’m constantly scanning through my professional network to set these ideas in motion. While I was equipped with hundreds of ideas and able to connect with thousands of talented people, I learned that passion was the single differentiator for success. Truth be told, ideas are plentiful and talent can be learned and honed. Passion, however, keeps us up for nights in a row not because we are trying to meet a deadline, but rather because we are curious to see the results. Trust me, you will know the difference when you see it.
As I was deciding where I would be starting my career, surrounding myself with passionate individuals was foremost criteria in my decision. When the mission of hundreds of others aligns with your own, I can only be optimistic of the sort of impact that will be created.
Compete with confident humility. You are amongst geniuses.
As you are developing your project and demonstrating it to the world, you will get your “oohs and ahhs”, press interviews, and recognition for your achievements. Don’t let it get to your head. Remember that you are amongst geniuses. The world can’t afford to wait for a single solution to fix everything. We have to tackle these problems collectively, understanding that we need to continue to support others towards similar goals. At the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in Poland and in New York, I was awe-struck not by the celebrities, but by the sheer brilliance and deep passion that students have to use technology to change the world.
Seek a strong mentor, it will pay dividends later. You'd be surprised how much they are part of the team.
I feel that everyone should have a mentor. Strong, trusted mentors are your most valuable resource. Having mentors inside and outside the competition provide an external means by which you are able to validate your decisions and train of thought. Establishing meaningful relationships with a mentor will ultimately help you ground your thoughts and ideas. Remember, they are your personal cheerleaders, wise pseudo-parents, and all-knowing teachers. All they want to do is help you succeed.
People will call you crazy, and that you're wasting your time on silly projects. But it's the crazy ones that change the world.
No one said saving the world would be easy. In fact, it’s crazy to think that you’ll be able to do it at all. But every now and then, crazy ideas become the innovations that define our generation. After working with so many students, and seeing the results of the work my team and I have been producing – it is heartwarming to see how our solutions are changing the lives of people around the world. So chin up, and don’t listen to the naysayers – your silly project may someday be the norm.
Likewise, in research, crazy projects offer new perspectives by which solutions should be approached. The fundamental difference is that the “wasted time” one spends on crazy ideas becomes mechanisms by which the company effectively learns.
Competing in the Imagine Cup for the past few years has been one of the best decisions of my life. I ultimately became a better job candidate, and even more so, a better global citizen. Regardless of these words of wisdom, if you have the seriousness of purpose, find wisdom in your failures, and lend yourselves to a cause greater than yourselves, then I guarantee you will do great things.